Swainson's warbler
Limnothlypis swainsonii
ITIS Species Code:   178848         NatureServ Element Code:   ABPBX09010
NatureServe Global Rank: 
NatureServe State (NC) Rank: 
Federal Status: 
NC State Status: 
Southern Blue Ridge:  29 Southern Piedmont:  26 South Atl. Coastal Plain:  27
Land Unit

US Fish & Wildlife Service
US Forest Service
US National Park Service
US Department of Defense
NC State Parks
NC University System
NC Wildlife Res. Com.
NC Forest Service
NC Div. of Coastal Mgmt.
Local Governments
Non-Governmental Org.
Other Public Lands
Private Lands

GAP Status 1-2
All Protected Lands




% of Dist. on
Prot. Lands

27.6 %
22.9 %
12.6 %
2.0 %
4.2 %
6.1 %
16.8 %
2.2 %
2.0 %
3.2 %
3.2 %
< 0.1 %
< 0.1 %

58.9 %
% of Dist. on
All Lands

5.4 %
4.5 %
2.5 %
0.4 %
0.8 %
1.2 %
3.3 %
0.4 %
0.4 %
< 0.1 %
0.6 %
< 0.1 %
80.2 %

11.6 %
The population that breeds in the southern mountains (Alsop 1991, Potter et al. 1980) may represent a separate subspecies (Meanley and Bond 1950). A separate population breeds in some areas of the coastal plain (Fussell 1994); rare and local in a few areas of the piedmont but generally absent (Potter et al. 1980).

In the mountains, nests in the shrubby undergrowth of decidiously forested river gorges with a partially open canopy and sparse ground cover (Dunn and Garrett 1997, Nicholson 1997) that drain the Blue Ridge plateau (Potter et al. 1980); also along waterways, ravines, and steep hillsides (Simpson 1992). In the coastal plain, breeds in floodplains (Parnell 1977) in 'impenetrable' wet thickets (Potter et al. 1980) with dense cane or broadleaf evergreens (Fussell 1994). Areas are generally shady with muddy soil or standing pools of water. Extensively flooded swamps are not used (Dunn and Garrett 1997). The species is semicolonial in small areas of suitable habitat (Ehrlich et al. 1988), with males having adjacent territories, each less than an acre in size. The nest usually lies on the edge or just outside of the territory (Griscom and Sprunt 1957).

Nest located 1 to 10 feet above the ground in a shrub, palmetto, or vine (Potter et al. 1980). The foundation of the nest may be a cluster of dead leaves on the head of a cane plant or a clump of Spanish moss lying across a cane (Griscom and Sprunt 1957). Forages on or near the ground, turning over leaves and probing into the soil with its bill (Ehrlich et al. 1988). Also forages on the base of tree trunks and in fallen logs, and rarely in slow-moving water (Dunn and Garrett 1997).


Meanley, (1971, p 25), describes the optimum habitat as 'a rich, damp (but not wet) woods with deep shade and moderately dense undergrowth.' These conditions are met in the floodplain and swamp forests of the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains, and in some moist forests of the southern Appalachians. On the coastal plains, this warbler occurs in the shadiest parts of the forest, with dense upper canopy, lower canopy and shrubs, and little herbaceous cover. The shrub stratum is often nearly monospecific stands of giant cane, ARUNDINARIA GIGANTEA (floodplain forest), sweet pepperbush or fetterbush (swamps at the northern end of range such as the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, and Pocomoke Swamp in Maryland and Virginia, and headwater swamps of the Atlantic Coastal Plain), or scrub palmetto (bottomlands). In the mountains, moist lower slopes of mountain ravines at elevations to 900 m are preferred, and a shrub layer of rhododendron is most common (Bent 1953, Meanley 1971, Hooper and Hamel 1979). Individuals were found primarily in sawtimber and to a lesser extent in pole stands of second-growth cove forests in the Southern Appalachians (Hooper 1978). Although the warbler is often reported to inhabit canebrakes in the literature, it is clearly not exclusively a cane species; structure of the habitat - both overstory and dense shrub understory canopies characteristic of successional forests - is apparently of primary importance, and a variety of shrubs will do (Graves 1992).

There are few quantified descriptions of habitat. Meanley (1971, p 31), noted that as of 1968 there were still some sections in the Ocmulgee floodplain forest (near Macon, Georgia) 'where canebrakes, nearly uninterrupted, covered 1-sq mile areas.' He recorded densities of cane poles of about 50,000 per ha, averaging five m high, and some reaching to 10 m near Macon, Georgia. In Monkey John Swamp in South Carolina, Meanley recorded 90% canopy coverage ('density'). The scrub palmetto understory averaged about one m in height, with about 20,000 plants per ha.

Eddleman et al. (1980) provide another quantified look at habitat characteristics in southern Illinois in the Shawnee National Forest. Some of their conclusions differ from those of Meanley. Eddleman et al. found that the species composition of overstory varied widely among warbler territories, and concluded that it had little effect on habitat selection. However, a substantial majority of the birds in their study nested in soft-mixed hardwoods (25 of 36). While the majority of singing males in their study were in forest with overstory trees over 20 yr old, the warblers were found in habitats ranging from late successional old fields with dense shrubs and surrounded by mature forest, to late-successional-stage forest. Figures on the frequency of territories falling in each stage were not given. Meanley (1971) noted a few cases where they were found in what he deemed to be marginal habitat (mostly dryer areas). He attributed these cases to areas where the warblers were locally common, and the population 'spilled over' from optimum to marginal habitats. This is a possible explanation for Eddleman et al.'s discovery of this warbler in unlikely habitat such as late-successional old fields.

In the Eddleman et al. study, individuals were never found in habitat with trees less than 7.6 m tall. Canopy coverage was always greater than 55%, and usually greater than 75%. Shrub stems (mostly cane) averaged over 26,000 stems/ha in their study, compared to nearly twice that in a study by Meanley (1966) in Georgia. These Illinois birds were only found in sites where soils were alluvial silts and clays. Male territories were limited to forest tracts at least 350 ha in size, and birds were always found within 200 m of water.

Eddleman et al. (1980) concluded that younger cane stands are needed, that cane needs openings to regenerate and that logging can be used to create openings to manage canebrake habitat. These conclusions have not been corroborated by follow- up studies. And apparently, no further studies characterizing habitat in other locations have been published. Results of timber cuts in warbler habitat in the Shawnee and South Carolina are described under MGMT.REQS.

While most accounts agree that this ground-foraging bird prefers areas with little to no live ground cover, accounts of the midstory of the forest vary. Burger (pers. comm.) reports that they are found in cane stands within forests with good overstory, and no midstory, while Meanley (1971) reported three layers to the forest canopy.

The literature does not describe winter habitat, though some comments are suggestive that habitat is similar. For instance, it has been suggested that the loss of cane habitat in Cuba has been detrimental to wintering populations (Morse 1989). While this may be true, the birds also occur in upland forest with moderate leaf litter in Peninsula de Zapata, Cuba (Hamel 1992). Mature, rich, damp, deciduous floodplain and swamp forests; requires areas with deep shade from both canopy and understory cover (Bushman and Therres 1988). Undergrowth (e.g., sweet pepperbush) of moist lowland forest and woodland, canebrakes and swamps; also in mountains in areas of dense ferns and evergreen shrubs (e.g., rhododendron, laurel); areas of deep shade, moderately dense undergrowth, and relatively dry ground (Meanley 1971). Prefers areas with the canopy at least 55-75% closed, with some openings to maintain a dense understory (Bushman and Therres 1988). Canebrakes with densities of at least 4000 stems/acre are preferred. Fairly narrow habitat requirements; habitat transient by nature (successional). Apparently area-sensitive, requiring larger habitat patches. In Illinois, large contiguous forest tracts of at least 350 ha are considered important habitat (see Bushman and Therres 1988). In winter probably occurs in undergrowth of mature forest. Nests in understory canes, shrubs, vine tangles, and similar sites, 0.5-3 m above ground, typically within about 200 m of open water, near the edge of a cane stand rather than in the densest part (see Bushman and Therres 1988). Often returns to same nesting area in successive years. In Missouri, all of 29 territories and 16 nests that were found were in stands of cane (Thomas, in Figg 1993).

Occupied Landcover Map Units:
Code NameDescription NC Natural Heritage Program Equivalent
50 Coastal Plain Mixed Bottomland Forests Includes forests dominated by a variety of hardwood species, including sweetgum, cottonwood, red maple. Coastal Plain Bottomland Hardwood (in part), Coastal Plain Levee Forest
49 Coastal Plain Oak Bottomland Forest Bottomland forests dominated by deciduous oak alliances. Oaks represented can include swamp chestnut, cherrybark, willow, and/or overcup oak. Inclusions of loblolly pine temporarily flooded forests occur in patches. Hydrology is temporarily to seasonally flooded. Coastal Plain Bottomland Hardwoods (in part) blackwater subtype, brownwater subtype
158 Coastal Plain Nonriverine Wet Flat Forests Loblolly pine - Atlantic white-cedar - red maple - swamp tupelo saturated forests as well as forests dominated by loblolly, sweetgum, and red maple in non-riverine flats. Non-riverine Wet Hardwood Forest
41 Peatland Atlantic White-Cedar Forest Dense stands of Atlantic white cedar with saturated hydrology. Can include swamp tupelo, red maple, and pond pines with a moderate shrub and herb layer. Peatland Atlantic White-Cedar Forest
15 Seepage and Streamhead Swamps Includes extensive peat flats in the coastal plain, dominated by swamp tupelo, maples, and Atlantic white cedar alliances. In the sandhills includes streamhead pond pine and bay forests alliances. Saturated hydrology. Bay Forest, Small Depression Pocosin, Streamhead Atlantic White Cedar Forest, Streamhead Pocosins
385 Oak Bottomland Forest and Swamp Forest The swamp chestnut oak, cherrybark oak, shumard oak and sweetgum alliance is one representative. Other alliances are dominated by water, willow, and overcup oaks. Swamp forests can be dominated by sweetgum, red maple, and black gum being dominant. Loblolly can occur in combination with sweetgum and red maple, or with tulip poplar. Includes saturated and semi- to permanently flooded forests in the mountains. Piedmont/Mountain Bottomland Forest, Piedmont/Mountain Swamp Forest
63 Coastal Plain Mesic Hardwood Forests Beech dominated forests with white oak and northern red oak as possible co-dominants. Dry-mesic to mesic forests on slopes and small stream bottoms in the coastal plain. Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest, Basic Mesic Forests
87 Pocosin Woodlands and Shrublands Includes pond pine woodland, low pocosin and high pocosin shrub dominated areas. Canebrakes and bay forests may be present. Pond Pine Woodlands, Peatland Canebrake, Small Depression Pocosin
230 Piedmont Mesic Forest American Beech - Red Oak - White Oak Forests. Mesic Mixed Hardwood
384 Piedmont/Mountain Mixed Bottomland Hardwood Forests Includes temporarily to seasonally forests dominated by hardwood species. Hardwoods include sweetgum, red maple, sycamore which co-occur in a mosaic of bottomland and levee positions. Includes alluvial hardwood forests in the mountains. Hemlock and white pine may occur as inclusions, but are generally mapped separately. Piedmont/Mountain Alluvial Forest, Piedmont/Mountain Levee Forest
383 Piedmont Mixed Successional Forest Generally loblolly mixed with successional hardwoods. Sweetgum, tulip poplar and red maple are common co-dominants in these successional forests. No equivalent
517 Hemlock Floodplain Forest Alluvial forest with hemlock and/or white pine in mountains and western piedmont. Hydrology is generally temporarily to seasonally flooded. Canada Hemlock Forest
526 Appalachian Cove Forest Mixed Mesophytic forests of the mountains. Includes tuliptree, basswood, yellow buckeye and surgar maple. This class is mapped to include cove forests dominated or co-dominated by hemlock. Rich Cove Forest, Acidic Cove Forest
527 Appalachian Hemlock Upland hemlock forests of the moutains region. Vary from side slopes to steep slope positions. Canada Hemlock Forest
View Entire Landcover Legend
Additional Spatial Constraints:
Exclude all area outside of known range.
Exclude the outerbanks.
Limited to elevation range: less than 3000 ft.
Meanley, B. 1966. Some observations on habitats of the Swainson's warbler. Living Bird 5: 151-165.

Parnell, J. F. 1977. Cooper's hawk. Pages 352-3 in J. E. Cooper, S. S. Robinson, and J. B. Funderburg (editors). Endangered and Threatened Plants and Animals of North Carolina. North Carolina Museum of Natural History, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Hooper, R. G. 1978. Cove forests:bird communities and management options. Pages 90-7 in R. M. DeGraaf (editor). Management of southern forests for nongame birds. U.S. Forest Service General Technical Report SE-14.

Eddleman, W.R., K.E. Evans, and W.H. Elder. 1980. Habitat characteristics and management of Swainson's warbler in southern Illinois. WILDLIFE SOCIETY BULLETIN 8: 228-233.

Carter, M., G. Fenwick, C. Hunter, D. Pashley, D. Petit, J. Price, and J. Trapp. 1996. Watchlist 1996:For the future. Field Notes 50(3):238-240.

Bent, A.C. 1953. Life histories of North American wood warblers. U.S. Natl. Mus. Bull. 203. Washington, D.C.

Hagan, J.M., III, and D.W. Johnston, editors. 1992. Ecology and conservation of neotropical migrant landbirds. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. xiii + 609 pp.

Hamel, P. B. 1992. The land manager's guide to the birds of the south. The Nature Conservancy, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 367 pp + several appendices.

Herkert, J. R., editor. 1992. Endangered and threatened species of Illinois:status and distribution. Vol. 2:Animals. Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. iv + 142 pp.

Simpson MB Jr. 1992. Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.

Meanley, B. and G.M. Bond. 1950. A new race of Swainson’s Warbler from the Appalachian Mountains. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 63:191-195.

Figg, D. E. 1993. Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife diversity report, July 1992-June 1993. 75 pp.

Graves, G.R. 1992. A case of aggregated nest placement and probable polygyny in the Swainson's warbler. WILSON BULLETIN 104: 370-373

Peterjohn, B.G., J.R. Sauer, and W.A. Link. 1994. The 1992 and 1993 summary of the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Bird Populations 2:46-61.

Sauer, J.R., and S. Droege. 1992. Geographical patterns in population trends of neotropical migrants in North America. Pages 26-42 in J.M. Hagan III and D.W. Johnston, editors. Ecology and conservation of neotropical migrant landbirds. Smithsonian Institu

Fussell, J.O. III. 1994. A birder’s guide to coastal North Carolina. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Dunn, J.L., and K.L. Garrett. 1997. A field guide to warblers of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

Nicholson CP. 1997. Atlas of the breeding birds of Tennessee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Hooper, R. G. and P. B. Hamel. 1979. Swainson's warbler in South Carolina. Pages 178-82 in D. M. Forsythe and W. B. Ezell, Jr. (editors). Proceed. First. S. Carolina End. Sp. Symposium. S. C. Wildl. and Man. Res. Dept.

Meanley, B. 1971. Natural history of the Swainson's warbler. U.S. Dept. of Int., Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, North Am. Fauna No. 69. vi + 90 pp.

Harrison, C. 1978. A field guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Collins, Cleveland, Ohio.

Griscom, L., and A. Sprunt, Jr. 1979. The warblers of America. Doubleday and Co., Garden City, New York. 302 pp.

Harrison, H.H. 1979. A field guide to western birds' nests. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 279 pp.

Potter, E. F., J. F. Parnell, and R. P. Teulings. 1980. Birds of the Carolinas. Univ. North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 408 pp.

Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), Committee on Classification and Nomenclature. 1983. Check-list of North American Birds. Sixth Edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Allen Press, Inc., Lawrence, Kansas.

Harrison, H.H. 1984. Wood warblers' world. Simon and Schuster, New York. 335 pp.

Bushman, E.S., and G.D. Therres. 1988. Habitat management guidelines for forest interior breeding birds of coastal Maryland. Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Tech. Publ. 88-1. 50 pp.

Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder's handbook:a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Shuster, Inc., New York. xxx + 785 pp.

Byrd, M.A., and D.W. Johnston. 1991. Birds. Pages 477-537 in K. Terwilliger, coordinator. Virginia's endangered species:proceedings of a symposium. McDonald and Woodward Publ. Co., Blacksburg, Virginia.

Morse, D. H. 1989. American warblers:an ecological and behavioral perspective. Harvard University Press. 384 pp.

Alsop FJ III. 1991. Birds of the Smokies. Gatlinburg: Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association.

Burger, Leslie. Department of Conservation, P. O. Box 180, Jefferson City, Missouri 65102-0180. Personal communication.

10 March 2005
This data was compiled and/or developed by the North Carolina GAP Analysis Project.

For more information please contact them at:
NC-GAP Analysis Project
Dept. of Zoology, NCSU
Campus Box 7617
Raleigh, NC 27695-7617
(919) 513-2853